The historic Christian town of Maaloula, Syria, is home to approximately 3,300 Syrians, and is considered to be the last place on earth where Aramaic,the ancient language and mother tongue spoken by Christ, is still the dominant language spoken. The town is home to a multitude of ancient shrines, churches and mosques, as well as two of the most significant monasteries in Syria, the Greek Orthodox Mar Takla and the Eastern Catholic Mar Sarkis. Mar Takla holds the remains of St. Thecla, the daughter of a Seleucid prince and a young female disciple of Saint Paul the Apostle, whose dramatic life story is told in the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla. Mar Sarkis is dedicated to St. Sergius, a Roman soldier who was executed for his Christian beliefs, and was built in the 4th century on the remains of a pagan temple. Deep inside its walls, Mar Sarkis hosts one of the oldest churches in all of Christendom.
While one may think an ancient and notable village such as this would escape being turned into a battlefield, one would be wrong to do so. The horrors of war are indiscriminate, and as the ongoing Syrian crisis has ravaged and scorched its way through the country, blood has freely flown down the historic cobblestone streets of Maaloula multiple times as well since this brutal conflict began.
It is difficult for me to imagine bombs being dropped from warplanes, and soldiers fighting in the streets of Maaloula. I find this hard to picture because in my mind I think of Maaloula as she was when my wife and I visited while we were living in Syria.
In my mind, I remember thinking how peaceful the town seemed. I remember hearing church-bells ring from some of the oldest standing churches in the entire world, calling the Christian faithful to prayer, followed by the sounds of the muezzins from the minarets of mosques, calling the Muslim faithful to prayer, and thinking how – at least in this Middle Eastern town – both Christians and Muslims lived harmoniously with one another. But more than anything else, I remember some of the people we met who lived there. I remember the three young girls who, after conversing with my wife in Arabic, sang her a song in their mother tongue of Aramaic. I remember thinking, as we listened to the young girls joyfully singing in such an ancient and nearly extinct language, that it seemed as if we were experiencing something holy. The smiles of these three young girls remain imprinted on my mind to this day. But now I can do no more than wonder what has become of them.
The fighting in Maaloula serves as a picture-perfect example of the complexity found throughout much of the Middle East. It also shows how truly evil and devastating the effects of war are.
Maaloula is predominantly a Christian town. The majority of Syrian Christians support President Bashar al-Assad and his regime. Bashar al-Assad is Alawite. Alawites form a Muslim sect within the Shia branch of Islam. The Iranians and Hezbollah, both of whom are Shiite, support Bashar al-Assad and his regime.
Syrian Christians, Iran, Hezbollah and Bashar al-Assad are on one side in Maaloula…
The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was initially the main opposition force fighting to overthrow the regime of Bashar al-Assad. Initially, the FSA was predominantly made up of moderate leaning Sunni Muslims who were not fighting under the banner of Islam. To some extent, both America and the West designated the FSA as being the “good guys” in the war and have given some amount of support to them. The al-Nusra Front is comprised of foreign jihadists and radical Sunni Islamists and is affiliated with al-Qaeda. They are fighting under the banner of Islam.
The Free Syrian Army, the al-Qaeda-linked al-Nusra Front, and foreign jihadists are on the other side in Maaloula…
The reality of this war in the Middle East – and the reality of the Middle East in general – is that not much makes sense from a Western perspective. The reality is that in the Middle East, Muslims are against Muslims, Christians are against Christians, Shia are against Sunni, secularists are against the religious, and in the town of Maaloula, the language spoken by both Christians and Muslims alike happens to be the ancient language and mother tongue of the Jewish man named Jesus.
I wonder if when Jesus said in Aramaic, “blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God,” he knew that one day in a small town in Syria, the prayers of the peacemakers would be silenced by the battle-cries of warriors, and that the death of his language – along with the last surviving speakers of it – may be, in a very literal sense, on the horizon.
Such is the brutal reality of the Middle East.